Ludwig van Beethoven Biography

Ludwig van Beethoven was probably born on 16 December 1770 in Bonn, the son of a musical family; he was certainly baptized on 17 December 1770. His father Johann van Beethoven was a tenor at the court chapel in Bonn of the Elector-Archbishop of Cologne; his grandfather Ludwig van Beethoven had been Kapellmeister or head of music at the court in Bonn. In 1781 the young Ludwig van Beethoven became a pupil of the court organist Christian Gottlob Neefe, becoming his master-pupil in just a few months, and standing in for his master on the organ when the latter was absent or indisposed. In 1783 he started playing the viola and harpsichord in the electoral orchestra, and that same year his first three piano sonatas were published. In the March issue of the Magazin der Musik Neefe praised him as a second Mozart, thus drawing attention to Beethoven’s talent at an early date.

First journey to Vienna
Neefe gave Beethoven both artistic and human encouragement. It was probably on his recommendation that Ludwig van Beethoven had a trip to Vienna in 1787 paid for by the Elector-Archbishop. Here he received further musical education at the hands of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The news of the terminal illness of his mother brought him back to Bonn within a few weeks, however. After her death, Beethoven became the family breadwinner.

Beethoven’s teachers
Only a year after Mozart’s death, in 1792, Beethoven went back to Vienna and remained there till the end of his life. On the recommendation of Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, Beethoven was taken up by the city’s aristocratic society. He now became a master-pupil of Haydn, as had been agreed at a personal meeting between Beethoven and Haydn at “La Redoute” in the resort of Bad Godesberg near Bonn. Until Haydn left for London at the start of 1794, Beethoven studied composition theory under him, and afterwards took instruction in counterpoint from Albrechtsberger, having already started studying Italian vocal composition concurrently under Antonio Salieri in 1792. In 1795 Beethoven first started performing his own piano compositions in the houses of the nobility. Within a short time he had built up a major reputation, and with the support of his patrons, he was able to work as a freelance composer.

Beethoven’s patrons
As Opus 1 he published three piano trios dedicated to Prince Karl Lichnowsky, in whose house he lived for at least two years. Beethoven was also close friends with Count Franz von Brunswik, while further benefactors included the Russian ambassador to the Viennese court, Count Rasumovsky, Prince Lobkowitz, Prince Esterházy and Archduke Rudolph, who studied composition under him and for whom he wrote the Missa solemnis op. 123.

Beethoven’s deafness
It was in 1795 that the first signs of progressive hearing loss became apparent. This made him more and more of a loner. By 1808 he was seriously hard of hearing, and in 1819 became totally deaf. In 1802 he wrote his “Heiligenstädter Testament”, a farewell letter to his brothers, a heartrending document of his helplessness in the face of his physical and psychological condition. From 1808 Beethoven gave no more public concerts. In the following years, communication with Beethoven was only possible in writing. His conversation books, which are still extant, provide a tragic idea of the feelings of a lonely human being and genius.

Even so, he managed to remain active as a composer to the end of his life. Ludwig van Beethoven died as a recluse in Vienna on 26 March 1827 at the age of 57. His funeral in Währingen three days later was attended by thousands, who heard a eulogy composed by the writer Franz Grillpartzer. In 1888 his remains were transferred to a grave of honour in Vienna’s central cemetery.

Ludwig van Beethoven was a revolutionary, a visionary and a cosmopolitan. He is regarded as one of those who brought Viennese classicism to a consummation. His most important works include the nine symphonies, the five piano concertos, the violin concerto, the 16 string quartets, 32 piano sonatas, the opera “Fidelio”, the Mass op. 86 in C major, and the Missa solemnis op. 123. Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the world’s most-performed composers; his works are known and loved worldwide.

Beethoven Bonnensis © Barbara Frommann